Rich getting richer is no accident

The upward redistribution of income in the United States over the last four decades has been well documented. Many argue there is little we can do about forces like globalization, accelerating technological change, the transformation to a service economy, taxes and government programs that have put downward pressure on wages for the ordinary American worker, but there are steps government could take to address these changes.

Economic inequality is the result of conscious policy choices. This issue is especially relevant in light of President Trump’s new tax blueprint and the health care overhaul recently passed by the House of Representatives.

From the 1950s to the mid-1980s, the richest 1 percent of Americans earned a touch under a 10 percent share of the national income. By 2012, that number was about 20 percent.

Overall wealth is even more concentrated than income. In 2012, the top 1 percent of the population controlled about 42 percent of the wealth.

The promises many politicians make about material comforts are duplicitous, since only a small minority have access to such comforts and they come at great expense to the majority. Working-class Americans feel left behind, stewing in their resentment of economic hardships and being forced to make daily choices between things like buying gas or putting food on the table.

They have come to believe government is run by and for the rich, who are used to getting their own way and face none of the daily struggles they do. Much of the American working class lives in a provisional world where making it to the next day is a victory.

Average Americans were cut adrift from their former lives, given little help to build new ones and disparaged as a basket of deplorables. All this was largely happening outside the view of the media and the political class.

You don’t have to have the psychological acuity of a self-important academic to understand the ironclad rage of the working class, which is proving to have the shelf life of radioactive waste. Is it any surprise that when powerless to determine their own destinies and achieve the American Dream, they backslide into anger and resentment?

This was not supposed to happen. In the optimistic period after the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989 and the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1992, free-market capitalism, with its invisible hand miraculously transforming selfishness into common good, was seen as the way to usher in a period of prosperity and peace.

More recently, one event after another has exposed this utopian narrative. The 2008 financial earthquake revealed fault lines running through the economic system that cost millions of Americans their jobs, homes, life savings and hopes for decent retirements. It unraveled communities, especially those where manufacturing jobs have disappeared and the well being of the working class has been marginalized by circumstances beyond their control. It was a cataclysm far worse than any natural disaster.

Troubling results from growing inequality include dampened economic growth, reduced social mobility, and a corrosive impact on democratic institutions. Another important consequence is weak consumer demand to support the economy.

It would be wise to recall how Henry Ford simultaneously created transportation for the masses and drove economic growth. He furnished consumers with reasonably priced cars while raising wages for his own workers to make the car affordable to them.

Rather than raising the federal minimum wage, a modern version of Ford’s approach would be to expand the earned income tax credit to supplement low-wage workers’ incomes, which would mean the government paying Americans whose earnings are below a certain level. The program was started under President Ford in 1975, expanded once by President Reagan and again by President Clinton.

President Trump has proposed expanding the earned income tax credit beyond the 27 million working families who currently benefit from it. Such a move would increase demand and economic growth by providing working class Americans with the living wage they deserve.

Originally Published: May 13, 2017